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Once upon a time—and a fairly long time it was—most of the thickly settled parts of the world had something called feudalism. It was a way of organizing society hierarchically. Typically, at the very top there was a sovereign (king, prince, emperor, pharaoh, along with some high priests). Below the sovereign were several ranks of noblemen, with hereditary titles. Below the noblemen were commoners, who likewise inherited their stations in life, be it by being bound to a piece of land upon which they toiled, or by being granted the right to engage in a certain type of production or trade, in case of craftsmen and merchants. Everybody was locked into position through permanent relationships of allegiance, tribute and customary duties: tribute and customary duties flowed up through the ranks, while favors, privileges and protection flowed down.
It was a remarkably resilient, self-perpetuating system, based largely on the use of land and other renewable resources, all ultimately powered by sunlight. Wealth was primarily derived from land and the various uses of land. Here is a simplified org chart showing the pecking order of a medieval society.
Feudalism was essentially a steady-state system. Population pressures were relieved primarily through emigration, war, pestilence and, failing all of the above, periodic famine. Wars of conquest sometimes opened up temporary new venues for economic growth, but since land and sunlight are finite, this amounted to a zero-sum game.
But all of that changed when feudalism was replaced with capitalism. What made the change possible was the exploitation of nonrenewable resources, the most important of which was energy from burning fossilized hydrocarbons: first peat and coal, then oil and natural gas. Suddenly, productive capacity was decoupled from the availability of land and sunlight, and could be ramped up almost, but not quite, ad infinitum, simply by burning more hydrocarbons. Energy use, industry and population all started going up exponentially. A new system of economic relations was brought into being, based on money that could be generated at will, in the form of debt, which could be repaid with interest using the products of ever-increasing future production. Compared with the previous, steady-state system, the change amounted to a new assumption: that the future will always be bigger and richer—rich enough to afford to pay back both principal and interest.
With this new, capitalistic arrangement, the old, feudal relationships and customs fell into disuse, replaced by a new system in which the ever-richer owners of capital squared off against increasingly dispossessed labor. The trade union movement and collective bargaining allowed labor to hold its own for a while, but eventually a number of factors, such as automation and globalization, undermined the labor movement, leaving the owners of capital with all the leverage they could want over a demoralized surplus population of former industrial workers. In the meantime, the owners of capital formed their own pseudo-aristocracy, but without the titles or the hereditary duties and privileges. Their new pecking order was predicated on just one thing: net worth. How many dollar signs people have next to their name is all that's necessary to determine their position in society.
But eventually almost all the good, local sources of hydrocarbon-based energy became depleted, and had to be replaced using lower-quality, more remote, harder-to-produce, more expensive ones. This took a big bite out of economic growth, because with each passing year more and more of it had to be plowed right back into producing the energy needed to simply sustain, never mind grow, the system. At the same time, industry produced a lot of unpleasant byproducts: environmental pollution and degradation, climate destabilization and other externalities. Eventually these started showing up as high insurance premiums and remediation costs for natural and man-made disasters, and these too put a damper on economic growth.
Population growth has its penalties too. You see, bigger populations translate to bigger population centers, and research results show that the bigger the city, the higher is its energy use per capita. Unlike biological organisms, where the larger the animal, the slower is its metabolism, the intensity of activity needed to sustain a population center increases along with population. Observe that in big cities people talk faster, walk faster, and generally have to live more intensely and operate on a tighter schedule just to stay alive. All of this hectic activity takes energy away from constructing a bigger, richer future. Yes, the future may be ever more populous (for now) but the fastest-growing form of human settlement on the planet is the urban slum—lacking in social services, sanitation, rife with crime and generally unsafe.
What all of this means is that growth is self-limiting. Next, observe that we have already reached these limits, and have in some cases gone far beyond them. The currently failing fad of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits and steaming oil out of tar sands is indicative of the advanced state of depletion of fossil fuel sources. Climate destabilization is producing ever more violent storms, ever more severe droughts (California now has just a year's worth of water left) and is predicted to wipe out entire countries because of rising ocean levels, failing monsoon seasons and dwindling irrigation water from glacial melt. Pollution has likewise reached its limits in many areas: urban smog, be it in Paris, Beijing, Moscow or Teheran, has become so bad that industrial activities are being curtailed simply so that people can breathe. Radioactivity from the melted-down nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan is showing up in fish caught on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
All of these problems are causing a very strange thing to happen to money. In the previous, growth phase of capitalism, money was borrowed into existence in order to bring consumption forward and by so doing to stimulate economic growth. But a few years ago a threshold was reached in the US, which was at the time still the epicenter of global economic activity (since eclipsed by China), where a unit of new debt produced less than one unit of economic growth. This made borrowing from the future with interest no longer possible.
Whereas before money was borrowed in order to produce growth, now it had to be borrowed, in ever-larger amounts, simply to prevent financial and industrial collapse. Consequently, interest rates on new debt were reduced all the way to zero, in something that came to be known as ZIRP, for Zero Interest Rate Policy. To make it even sweeter, central banks accepted the money they loaned out at 0% interest as deposits, which earned a tiny bit of interest, allowing banks to make a profit by doing absolutely nothing.
Unsurprisingly, doing absolutely nothing proved to be rather ineffective, and around the world economies started to shrink. Many countries resorted to forging their statistics to paint a rosier picture, but one statistic that doesn't lie is energy consumption. It is indicative of the overall level of economic activity, and it is down across much of the world. A glut of oil, and a much lower oil price, is what we are currently witnessing as a result. Another indicator that doesn't lie is the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks the level of shipping activity, and it has plummeted too.
And so ZIRP set the stage for the latest, most queer development: interest rates have started to go negative, both on loans and deposits. Good bye, ZIRP, hello, NIRP! Central banks around the world are starting to make loans at small negative rates of interest. That's right, certain central banks now pay certain financial institutions to borrow money! In the meantime, interest rates on bank deposits have gone negative as well: keeping your money in the bank is now a privilege, for which one must pay.
But interest rates are certainly not negative for everyone. Access to free money is a privilege, and those who are privileged are the bankers, and the industrialists they fund. Those who have to borrow to finance housing are less privileged; those who borrow to pay for education even less so. Those not privileged at all are those who are forced to buy food using credit cards, or take out payday loans to pay rent.
The functions which borrowing once played in capitalist economies have been all but abandoned. Once upon a time, the idea was that access to capital could be obtained based on a good business plan, and that this allowed entrepreneurship to flourish and many new businesses to be formed. Since anybody, and not just the privileged, could take out a loan and start a business, this meant that economic success depended, at least to some extent, on merit. But now business formation has gone in reverse, with many more enterprises going out of business than are being formed, and social mobility has become largely a thing of the past. What is left is a rigidly stratified society, with privileges dispensed based on hereditary wealth: those at the top get paid to borrow, and get to surf on a wave of free money, while those at the bottom are driven ever further into debt servitude and destitution.
Can NIRP underpin a new feudalism? It certainly cannot reverse the downward slide, because the factors that are putting limits on growth are not amenable to financial manipulation, being physical in nature. You see, no amount of free money can make new natural resources spring into existence. What it can do, however, is freeze the social hierarchy among the owners of capital—for a while, but not forever.
Everywhere you care to look, the ever-shrinking economy eventually results in populist revolt, war and national bankruptcy, and these cause money to stop working in a number of ways. There is usually devaluation, bank failures, inability to finance imports, and the demise of pensions and of the public sector. The desire to survive causes people to focus on getting direct access to physical resources, distributing them among friends and family.
In turn, this causes market mechanisms to become extremely opaque and distorted, and often to stop functioning altogether. Under these circumstances, how many dollar signs someone has next to their name becomes rather a moot point, and we should expect the social hierarchy among the owners of capital to become unstable and capsize. A few among them have the talents to become warlords, and these few fleece the rest out of existence. But overall, in a situation where financial institutions have failed, where factories and other enterprises are no longer functioning, and where real estate holdings have been overrun by marauding mobs and/or invaded by squatters, one's net worth becomes rather difficult to compute. And so we should expect the org chart of the post-capitalist society, in spreadsheet terms, to look like this. (“#REF!” is what Excel displays when it encounters an invalid cell reference in a formula.)
A good, precise term for this state of affairs is “anarchy.” Once a new, low level of steady-state subsistence is reached, the process of aristocratic formation can begin anew. But unless a new source of cheap fossil fuels is somehow magically discovered, this process would have to proceed along the traditional, feudal lines.
Hey Dmitri Mahn , great write . I look around my little hobby farm that took twenty five years to accumulate , with all its little activities like orchard , vineyard , bio diesel plant etc ......maybe a million auatralian tied up here , mahn . I look at my neighbours , wealthy retirees and idealistic greenies mostly ... I cant take them seriously , i have tried to hold hands and aing kumbaya but i keep thinking " there is going to be the mother of all cleanouts here , when the shtf" .... I see the day when i will build community by shooting every newcomer i meet in the leg to help establiah respect , amd then we go from there ....i feel vuonerable , because no one coming through the still standing industrial system after me has a lazy million to emulate me ... Which makes me a target of sorts ... Silly really , no way of knowing if this will happen exactly ... Perhaps after i shoot them i could cook them dinner to help make it right .....??
What does#REF! mean?
My wife got an offer in the mail yesterday from a major bank for a pre-approved credit card with a $15,000 limit.....with an interest rate of 26.99%!!!
I thought to myself, how on earth could anyone with a credit rating good enough to be pre-approved for $15k in unsecured credit card debt be stupid enough to accept the 27% compound interest, when prime rate in my country is 2.85%?
We are in Bizarro world right now, and I find it mind boggling that more people can't see it.
I love reading your views Dmitri, as they mirror mine (as an American living now in Italy for 35 yrs). No room for optimism when the only solutions are revolution or war.
The first can't happen because there isn't widespread mass hunger (in the wider sense) or courage (balls) for revolt, so the second is much more likely, since all that requires is a small number of idiots (no shortage of these) to hit the "go" button.
Here is my question for you:
Considering the probability of a major reset at some not so distant future date, what would you do with everything you've saved over nearly four decades of sacrifice. Mine is currently split between banks and insurance companies (not in stocks, nor in gold for lack of secure storage options). I'm fully aware that these are poor choices for someone of my views, but I also have a family and a business and buying a houseboat and sailing towards a sunset is not on my list of options (yet). Real estate would be on my list, but there aren't many countries on my shortlist that won't be part of the mess.
I will consider your reply to be a simple opinion and absolutely nothing more, so please speak from the heart.
And please keep the flow coming on your blog.
Something is happening here that I have never seen before--empty shelves in the supermarkets on ordinary days, not just before storms or disasters. Food is no longer being replaced 100 percent. Hm-m-m, Is nature giving us the heads-up that has been predicted for so long?
Ultimately, when the stuff hits the fan, no guns, no ammo, no whiskey, no gold, no farm, no stockpile will spare anyone from being scathed. The question is how to go on then and after.
"Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal." (Mt 6:20)
Before feudalism there was empire with vast tracks of land under the control of an enlightened ruler or commonly under the control of a secession of tyrants. Feudalism resulted when the old system of empire broke down and an overpopulated and impoverished empire stretched to its limit could no longer defend itself against the constant pressure of invaders invested in rapine. These invaders had no industry or other way to obtain products their nomadic existence could not produce except by rapine. Barbarians were at the gates and they brought the old system down. Rape and pillage is a common activity of uncivilized illiterate and impoverished peoples.
A significant difference between the old civilization and the newer system of feudalism was the scale of an economic unit. Feudalism was an early attempt at 'localization' forced upon the land through adversity invasion and compromise. The world became smaller and civilization wound down. Large schools and institutions could no longer be maintained and the fruits of civilized life were lost. The economy of scale needed to support civilization as it was previously known simply ceased to exist.
Ignorance ruled the day and its inexorable entropy everywhere flourished. Rude farms of serfs lay side by side next to great ruins of a past golden age. Today we know far more about the builders of these ruins than the peasants of that age of feudalism ever did. Their world had returned to illiteracy, the clock turned back. Knowledge of the past was locked away in monasteries awaiting the discovery of a future age.
The world does not get forever better faster and cheaper. Only our current civilization drunk on technological wizardry as it is believes in this deluded and foolish fantasy. Civilization like civil rights erode away when when not maintained and respected. Arts not patronized vanish.
A return to feudalism cannot be avoided but we could if we desire take pains in deciding what shape a new 'localization' will manifest. A rough beast of social collapse, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. It will not be stopped yet we have choices over what face this beast will bear.
We can have a benevolent feudalism or one ruled by misery, pain and tyrants. The choice is before us and we serve not ourselves or future generations by ignoring this truth. Far better the choice be voluntary and self directed than it be ushered in by winds of chaos which will blow away humanity and decent consideration.
It's quite telling that you would leave the church, the mainstay of the Holy Roman Empire and the legitimizing power behind the throne in feudal Europe, out of your flowchart. But to reach the true level of massacre and mindless murder the descent into madness will encompass, there is nothing like a good dose of Faith-based self-righteousness to spill blood in the copious amounts necessary to achieve yet another "New World Order".
In Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia", he explains the dynamic we see operating in the modern world when he says, "Franco was not strictly comparable with Hitler or Mussolini. His rising was a military mutiny backed up by the aristocracy and the Church, and in the main, it was an attempt not so much to impose Fascism as to restore feudalism". Whether Poroshenko's declaration that private “pocket” armies of governors will no longer be tolerated, will be taken seriously, resulting in Kolomoiskii actually laying down his arms, is still to be determined. But the fact that Kolomoiskii views himself as he does seems to be an early indication that this nascent feudalism you describe is indeed already starting to exert itself.
Thanks for another great post Dmitri. I’m interested in the history of the feudal system because I’m British by birth, we practically invented it, and it’s still alive and well judging by the large turnout of commoners for events like royal births, weddings and funerals. A return to some sort of feudal system might not be all that bad. Sure, in the old days if you fell out of favor with the king or a member of the local nobility, life could get very short and unpleasant and there wasn’t much justice, but I don’t think the peasants (that would be us) were generally any less happy than they are today. Look at the number of tranquillizers and antidepressants consumed today. And if you really didn’t like the station in life which you were allocated at birth, there were some alternative options, for example, adopting a travelling lifestyle like the Roma, where you were not tied either to land or to military service for an overlord, joining the Freemasons (I mean the literal medieval Free Masons) or emigrating to the New World. It’s just going to be rather messy and unpleasant on the way back to a feudal society like that.
There was a "window" of cheap fossil energy and technical ability that would have allowed humanity to get out of the gravity well and established in other parts of the solar system, making use of abundant extra terrestrial raw materials/solar energy.
The window is closing fast, at least so far as USA is concerned- I expect the language spoken among the asteroids to be Chinese, unless we all end up squatting in the mud here until we flicker out from pollution and disease, or kill ourselves off in a quicker and more deliberate fashion- Just another of the many intelligent species that did not survive childhood.
What you said about big cities requiring more energy certainly explains why rent is always higher in major metropolitan areas.
As I've said on many of these forums and comment-sections, I remain amazed that the Masters of the Universe have been able to keep the running chainsaws in the air for as long as they have.
Steve Ludlum at his Economic Undertow blog frequently posits the idea that debt is so important to capitalism that capitalists in fact borrow the profits they enjoy using their business and its inventory as collateral.
At some point in the powering-down of industrial civilisation, a bank will be caught out by its underwriting of Credit Default Swaps, triggering a massive cascade of similar failures at all the major banks, and a lock up of the financial system.
Electricity generation is an incredibly complex system that relies on cash flow to survive - electricity bills need to be paid so that fossil fuels can be paid for and transported.
So with the banking sector out of action, the electricity will stop soon after.
That takes out computers and the internet, telephones, TV, radio, water pumping, sewage pumping and all forms of industrial production.
While we can all remember (roughly) how things were done before electricity, going back there is impossible without all the infrastructure and skills that we had back then - it has all been thrown on the scrap heap long ago in the name of efficiency.
And nobody will know what the hell is going on because the phones don't work and the TV is off.
A few tribes of rainforest hunter-gatherers will no doubt survive without even noticing the change, and the wildlife will heave a huge sigh of relief.
"While we can all remember (roughly) how things were done before electricity, going back there is impossible without all the infrastructure and skills that we had back then - it has all been thrown on the scrap heap long ago in the name of efficiency.
And nobody will know what the hell is going on because the phones don't work and the TV is off." ~ palloy
First, in the USA there are many communities which do without electricity at all.
Second the infrastructure is easier to find and use than you could imagine.
You north americans are so spoiled, upset over a lousy 27% APR on a credit card. Where I live we'd give our left nut for a rate that low. Your run of the mill Visa/MC here in Mexico for someone with a GOOD credit history starts at around 50% APR, and fluctuates a lot more than it is allowed to in the USSA. I've personally seen as high as 80% per year, again with no delinquencies ever. So quit yer belly-achin', you don't know how soft you've got it.
Not quite sure about your NIRP world? Central banks already pay for commercial banks advances, something at like 6% when they auction T-bonds.
Banks have all the money to well afford the CB's requirements.
Central banks however [Monetarily sovereign ones] never need to borrow. The bonds are sold to drain excess reserves caused by private banks lending too much to maintain the desired interest rate. Tax also reduces spending power, for the same purpose.
However the malaise you see is now systemic as we begin to see a world on its way down to ruin.
I think this worry is behind some of the decline through balance sheet recession finance etc.
This is a good article, but leaving out usury and its paranational networks which leapfrogged over land-based feudal ones into direct influence, later actual control, of the ruling monarchs, is a flaw. The true story is not just about cheaper forms of energy. If such energy were managed by the State on a non-profit basis, for example, it would not undermine society the way it has done. Our States are beholden to commercial materialist interests which now rule the collective roost. It is axiomatic that the followers follow where the leaders lead unless and until such destinations become entirely unworkable, i.e. without shelter, food, ability to provide the same etc. Right now they lead us to some sort of virtual serfdom albeit with significant relative freedom - you can choose which job to work, you can also build an independent career, but no matter what over 50% of your earnings will go, directly and indirectly, to banking and their related cartels which are concealed by controlled Press and educational institutions.
Again, this is all much more than cheap energy which itself is delivered in such a way as to promote centralisation not localisation and is not optimized for most efficient performance in any case (no use of water, steam engines, pressure engines, fiber/oil, etc.)
hey-dog, the advantages of empire are kind of over-rated, unless you're The Guy In Charge or one of his retainers. Vast tracts of land under one jurisdiction do have advantages, but they get collected because one nation has a larger and better-trained standing army than its neighbors. Unless you're a Somebody, you're typically paying for that with a big share of the crop you need to live on, and paying the money-lender if that comes due in a bad year. Even so, the land an empire starts with does not produce enough on its own to maintain such an army indefinitely; that army needs to plunder neighboring nations. Once they become part of the system, these don't produce enough annually to fund the army you'll need to hold the larger territory. You get a kind of military Ponzi scheme: New conquests pay for the cost of running the old ones, but sooner or later you run out...
It seems like we have had a kind of feudal system for quite a while. Petrodollars seems like a kind of world wide tax on every country buying oil. The military part has been in place for almost as long.
I believe in the community of man. It makes no difference that it has been eroding for generations in both the East and west. People are about to find strength in community once again. Yes, things look hopeless. In times of crisis, the best comes out in people. Remember that person who helped you out because they saw you needed help? The one who did not ask for anything in return? Did you even know their name? They entered your life for a few short moments and left. Stop being so pessimistic.
I did the thought experiment and dared to think through the consequences after having read most of the books and articles related to this and figured it would end in some form of neo feudalism in the areas of the American continent that are still habitable. I just hope the people of central and south America are a little charitable to the people to the north who will likely be fleeing southwards towards the equator, seeing we have and continue to exploit and kill them by the millions (over the centuries and into the present, with the latest being Obama the clown announcing that Venezuela was "a grave threat to the security of the US") (wondering if they haven't yet dumped the dollar for their oil sales, where they starting to talk or act on it?)
What will be the new money, the new medium of exchange after the dollar inevitably collapses? Many claim all the gold and silver in the US is accounted for, so that is one question I wished someone would take a stab at. Are they going to pretend like these federal reserve notes still have value, or? Other countries won't buy it. Maybe the UK, but even the other satellite countries of the neocons are starting to turn away from the dollar.
Dmitry that was an excellent post and summary of how and why we got here. Nice touch with the "#REF!" reference. I am surprised you didn't use "NaN", but I guess that would have been too geeky!
Like Alfred1860 alluded to above, I have been seeing new mortgage, credit card, and personal loans start to trickle in via snail mail like back in the good old 00s, pre-crash. None of them have had under 15% APRs let alone zero or negative! It seems the sugar sweet interest rates are only for the ones who least need it, re-enforcing the narrative that your laid out so well.
Well put. In prior posts I've mention to understand the health of any nations economy you only need to evaluate three pieces of information. It's consumption of fuel the BDI of that nation and its consumption of electricity. If they're not up neither is that nations economy. The rest is political BS.
This is a very good essay, but could you please provide a source for the assertion that cities use more energy per capita than the surroundings? In Toronto, at least, the experience is the opposite (some areas of the suburbs emit 10 times more CO2 per capita than areas in the centre):
The cited study by Daniel Hoornweg (which compares the widely varying emissions from about 100 different cities) can be found here: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/23/1/207
It can be downloaded for free.
The author found that denser cities (particularly ones that are poor or have better public transit systems) produce fewer CO2 emissions (in other words, use less energy).
forrest - I was not aware I was advocating empire. I don't. I was musing on the loss of economy of scale which has made life as we know it possible. I was advocating a planned collapse which we both know isn't going to happen. So why advocate a planned collapse at all you may ask?
Because not everything is black and white and some good is usually better than no good at all.
Your argument about empire being a Ponzi scheme makes a lot of sense. Any system which takes more than it gives is going to wind up looking like a Ponzi at the end but our empire which depends on oil for its fundamental operations is going to look like one real soon with some added extra drama.
How soon I don't know. The can gets kicked down the road until a kick sends it off the road. Then it is game over.
Much of this post relates to Professor Walter Prescott Webb's Boom Hypothesis of Modern History which he explained in his 1952 book, "The Great Frontier."
The "great frontier" was the newly discovered American continent (and other lands) full of hitherto unknown, easily "harvested," untapped natural resources. This new frontier precipitated a multi-century boom like the world had never seen before.... and will never see again.
Professor Webb saw the big picture of history and his book foretold the myriad problems we are seeing today. The man was brilliant. Check him out.
"populist revolt, war and national bankruptcy"? Let's get this party started! US policies already have made eternal war so i'm sick of paying my student loans, and taxes to feed the machine...I'd argue that I'm near the base of the current pyramid as a tax donkey/ debt slave..or $ as you succinctly put it...being #REF might be a relief.
People are complaining about the interest rates on credit cards don't seem to understand the simple fact, if you pay off your balance every month, it doesn't make a hoot how much they charge.
Don't go in debt.
Wait, say that again please.
DON"T GO IN DEBT!
I have two cards and put all my basic purchases, like gas and groceries on them each week BUT I also pay off the balance every Sunday.
Why do I use them then, they offer me a 2-3% cash back return. I'm letting the banksters pay me.
Don't play their game.
I didn't think anyone here was really a big fan of empires; I just didn't think the distinction between them and feudal regimes was much help to the guys with spears & hoes.
When things start to get more centralized, sometimes a strong overlord will play the little guys against the local bullies he wants to keep down -- and thus offer a little largess to the poor schmucks, like the USian federal government used to do until the bank gangs pointed out that poor schmucks don't have much they can afford to pay in campaign contributions; and what have poor schmucks done for a politician lately?
Since then the largess just pours uphill while propaganda flows everywhere; and everybody with any power likes this arrangement just fine while it lasts.
Indeed, the EROEI in all the new reserves are much poorer than what propelled the 20th century.
It's easy to understand EROEI it if one think of the first oil well in Pennsylvania, which gushed up in the air, with the pre-salt field off the coast of Brazil under 2km of water and then another 2km of rock. Obviously, it takes much more energy to extract oil from the ocean soil than when it rains down on you. IOW, for each barrel of oil extracted, a portion of another barrel had to be used in its extraction, effectively lowering the energy yield of such reserves.
When new reserves are found, all that is touted is their amount, without considering how much energy is required to get it. Take them with a barrel of salt.
For America, the world is their new frontier. If other nations are exploitable,then count on a visit from the Puppets of the New World Order to rob it. Thanking God for Putin is probably more likely where Europe is headed. The Americas and Middle East are already beyond the point of salvation unless they Put a stop to the Zionist Cabal who kill for their plunder. But thanks for the Article, it generated some very thought provoking and enlightening Comments.
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